The untold story behind the California recall is that Californians have been tricked into thinking they have a terrible governor. The lackluster news media, juggling sensational reports about Schwarzengroping and Bustamante’s casino-money malfeasance, were simply too busy to review whether the vilification of Gray Davis had any basis in fact. Too busy and too confused, also, was the electorate. Who in this fracas could possibly give Davis a fair evaluation? Who even cared about giving him one? The recall wasn’t about reason, it was about anger, and, to a lesser extent, about fun. Yes, fun. The genius of Darrell Issa’s pet project to Republicanize the capitol was to create enough chaos that the truth got sucked up by bad puns and collective hysteria.
California has seen darker hours — assuming Schwarzenegger does not lead his party back into the morass of xenophobia in which it has been mired for most of the last two decades — but never has it seen such an obscene disdain for truth. Like Schwarzenegger’s character in “Total Recall,” Californians’ collective memory was washed away and reconstituted — replaced with a preposterous image of Davis as a sort of demonic politician-robot programmed to bring down the economy and commit acts of legal graft.
Even Cruz Bustamante got into the act of collective amnesia when he conveniently forgot his pledge to forcefully denounce the recall in the same breath, or even the same speech, as advocating his own candidacy, or when he overstated the budget deficit — as Issa has done all along, with astonishing impunity — and insisted, in total contradiction of the facts, that the energy crisis had precipitated the budget shortfall. It was a testament to Issa’s and Arnold’s propaganda machine that they could claim such an unlikely victim.
Lies compounded lies — according to pro-recall Web sites and even some high-profile blogger sophisticates who should have known better — Davis was responsible for the energy crisis, lied about the extent of the budget shortfall to protect his prospects for re-election, and ultimately deserved the recall, a shining example of direct democracy.
But how could any initiative funded entirely by one man — a known ideologue whose initial intention was to install himself as governor — possibly be considered direct democracy? How could Davis have covered up red ink during last fall’s election when, at the time, even the bipartisan legislative analyst was forecasting a surplus? How could Davis have borne full responsibility for the energy crisis when FERC, stocked by Bush with oil company executives, blankly refused to help California recover money from unscrupulous out-of-state suppliers, in effect refusing to perform its one existential responsibility, to ensure fairness in the interstate energy trade? How could the solution to the problem of managerial incompetence in Sacramento be solved by electing a movie star with a woeful understanding of public policy, with positively zero experience in government, and who did not even bother to vote in 13 of the last 20 elections? Nobody in Arnold’s camp could give a compelling reason why electing an ‘outsider’ would loosen the grip of special interests, and besides, how could Arnold be considered an outsider when his campaign was run and his platform shaped by holdovers from Pete Wilson’s insider regime?
Arnold’s clever handlers played a Socratic game: “Yes, but,” they would say, “how can you justify Davis’ positively Hooverian 25 percent approval ratings?” I can’t. Nobody can. Almost nobody liked Davis, not even his staff, who owe their jobs to him. But the tautology of blaming Davis for his unpopularity isn’t the point any more than Arnold’s randy movie-set behavior is.
The point is that voters sometimes make serious mistakes on the basis of misinformation, and saying so is not the same as saying that democracy is bad. Rather, it is saying what is good about informed republicanism, civic pride and civic responsibility, all of which are in conspicuous absence right now in California, where paid petition-gatherers and millionaires with pet political projects currently rule the roost, and which would have spared California $60 million and untold international embarrassment, and are not at all lost causes. I might personally believe the recall was an act of rank stupidity and gross electoral perversity, but where public imperilment is concerned it is easy to separate opinion from considered alarm. If we take one lesson from modern history, it ought to be that mind-numbing mass politics are extremely dangerous. Arnold, who has voiced a preference for Hitler’s communications skills — but apparently not what he did with them — knows why.
But leave Arnold aside. For Californians the task now is to look back and learn from our mistakes, whether that includes recalling Davis or re-electing him in the first place. It doesn’t mean another recall, which revanchist Democrats have proposed. That would just exacerbate California’s political and economic problems (the state can’t afford another $60 million to treat another outbreak of fickleness), and would unnecessarily complicate California Democrats’ uphill battle to revive themselves for an even bigger prize than Sacramento, the White House in 2004. What it does mean is that Californians should concentrate on reinstating a fair and balanced (in the old, not ironic sense) public memory. Gray Davis was no more a terrible governor than he was a great one: his record on health care, gun control, education, the environment and crime, was pragmatic, not ideological, and generally utilitarian, not a customized handout for special interests. Davis negotiated an intelligent compromise with Indian tribes that authorizes gaming on tribal lands but restricts it from urban areas. Two years ago he helped pass a landmark clean-air bill that closed the commercial vehicle loophole and empowered the state’s air-quality regulating authority to go after auto-makers failing to meet tough new emissions standards. Just in the months since his re-election Davis signed the nation’s toughest anti-spam law and endorsed a do-not-call registry.
As for the much-ballyhooed budget crisis, it was a result of Proposition 13’s creation of an over-dependence on the unreliable income tax revenues from California’s boom-and-bust economy, and Davis just inherited the time bomb. But whatever Davis’ failures it is important to remember that Californians elected him last fall knowing essentially what we know now; to suggest otherwise, as Issa has done, is to recall the truth.
And nobody can say that Davis has not paid for his shortcomings, which is more than one can say for most politicians — it is certainly more than one can say for the governor-elect, who is assuredly an unfaithful and exploitative husband, and allegedly something far worse. The allegations against him by fifteen women are still outstanding, and he can only hope California’s epidemic of amnesia will end up erasing those charges, too.
Aaron Goode is a senior in Calhoun College.